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Simplified structure adds to cultural gap
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A list of 8,300 Chinese characters for common use was published last week to solicit public opinion. This is the third time it is being done to regularize characters since 1956 and was against a different background: the heated debate over whether to restore the unsimplified traditional Chinese characters. That this list contains 1,335 more characters than its previous version published in 1986 is considered by some as a gesture of compromise to both sides in the debate.

This is because 51 variant forms of their corresponding common characters are included. And so are six unsimplified ones. Some of them have been used as surnames of particular families and some have been commonly accepted despite their deletion from the first list in 1956.

But the group of experts who have been working on the list for more than eight years has given an explicit answer to the debate by saying that the more complex Chinese characters will not be restored in order to avoid confusion in their use.

It is not difficult to get a message from the answer that there is at least something undesirable with the simplified Chinese characters. I think neither side in the debate is opposed to the suggestion by some that Chinese on the mainland should at least learn to recognize the unsimplified characters.

Among other things, the biggest loss the simplified characters have caused has been the inability of the majority of people born after the 1950s to read ancient Chinese classics although some argue that quite a number of simplified characters actually existed in ancient times.

Maybe they are right. But there is no denying that quite a number of Chinese characters have lost their cultural connotations that could be reflected in their structures after being simplified. There are many instances of several different unsimplified characters with totally different meanings or referring to different things being reduced to just one simplified character. For example, the character fa (hair) used to be a different one from its homonym fa (strike it rich), but they have become the same word after the characters have been simplified.

There has been no written language, except the extinct ones, that has remained unchanged from their original forms. But it should be a natural and gradual process of evolution. In such process the clear traces of change can often be identified so that the line of culture represented by the written language forms can be maintained.

The arbitrary simplifying of Chinese characters has indeed created or added to the gap between modern and ancient cultures although the simple and easily-recognizable characters did make it easier for illiterate people to learn to read and write. Yet, if the unsimplified characters were kept unchanged, the illiterates would have undoubtedly learned to read and write given their enthusiasm to learn and the great effort of teachers in literacy classes.

Developed from a kind of pictograph, quite a number of unsimplified Chinese characters reflect cultural messages from their own structures. The book Recognize A Few Characters by Taiwan novelist Chang Ta-ch'un tries to explain such cultural messages of 89 common Chinese characters to children. In this way, he says that children will develop interest in Chinese characters and then in traditional Chinese culture.

With relations across the Taiwan Straits becoming increasingly close, people on the mainland will have more chances to at least read in unsimplified Chinese characters, which on the other side of the Straits remain unchanged in structure. The meeting of the two different sets of characters of the same origin provides us with some food for thought on our attitude towards the characters and the culture that their structures convey.

(China Daily August 21, 2009)

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